Time running out minister

Transport minister Obert Mpofu promised a quick turnaround for the perennially struggling National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) when he was appointed to the new portfolio in 2013.

In October 2013, Mpofu said he had given himself 12 months to turn around the fortunes of the NRZ, which is saddled with debts and obsolete equipment.

He immediately blocked NRZ, which had not been paying its workers for a month, from retrenching arguing the parastatal was about to turn the corner.

The minister rightly pointed out at the time that the recovery of the NRZ was key to revival of Bulawayo’s economy.

NRZ’s fortunes are tied to the fate of several companies that used to contribute significantly to the national economy, but can no longer produce optimally because of the problems the rail transporter is facing.

For some time, Mpofu has been saying NRZ was close to clinching a $653 million loan from the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA) to recapitalise its operations.

NRZ has debts amounting to close to $300 million and is hardly generating any revenue, which explains the mounting salary backlog that goes back several months.

Mpofu on Tuesday told Parliament NRZ and DBSA had since signed a mandate letter for the loan to be repaid over a period of up to five years and that the State rail company would engage a technical partner to support the borrowing.

The minister said this was being done to avoid government guarantees and this makes sense because Treasury is technically bankrupt.

Mpofu’s announcement would bring some relief to the NRZ workers, who had resorted to staging weekly protests to press for the payment of their outstanding salaries.

However, judging from the minister’s statements, there is no indication when the technical partner would come on board to expedite the processing of the DBSA loan.

Mpofu’s promised 12 months to turn around the parastatal have long lapsed and he should show some urgency in pushing through these deals that he has been talking about since 2013.

The parastatal has been operating without a substantive general manager since the death of Mike Karakadzai in August 2013 and that does not bode well for an organisation that has been lurching from one crisis to another.

For the past year, the NRZ board has been talking about the recruitment of a general manager without any evidence of real action on the ground.

Mpofu can only push through all these grand ideas he seems to have for the parastatal by having a focal person to champion them.

Someone has to be accountable for the timelines that the minister is throwing around so that this does not end as mere rhetoric.

On Tuesday, Mpofu spoke at length about long forgotten NRZ properties in countries such as South Africa and the United Kingdom.

He said the NRZ owned buildings in South Africa and the UK that were acquired during the colonial era as well as mineral resources in the region.

He said if sold, the resources would rake in billions of dollars for the NRZ and it is baffling why the government has not taken any action for the past 35 years.
The workers who have not received their salaries for several months do not want to hear about long-term plans such as the disposal of assets in London or Johannesburg, but a clear strategy that will bring the NRZ back to its feet.

In short, it is time for Mpofu to start delivering on his promises for a quick turnaround of the NRZ.

He has already missed his self-imposed deadlines and very soon five years will be up without any tangible work done to revive the parastatal.

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